“The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life.” ~ Richard Bach
“My family is my strength and my weakness.” ~ Aishwarya Rai Bachchan
“The other night I ate at a real nice family restaurant. Every table had an argument going.” ~ George Carlin
All relationships are complicated. But boy, family members are so entangled! What in the world can you do if a family member is so toxic they need to be cut out of your life?
There are three phases you must go through to make this as successful as possible. First, make sure. Second, make the cut. Lastly, manage all your other family relationships to address the shift in dynamics your actions caused.
Phase 1: Make Sure
This is a really big decision, so make sure you evaluate your relationship closely. Usually when my clients say they want to cut someone out of their life it’s on the heels of a big blowup. That’s not the time to make this decision.
If you’ve just had one more fight with your sibling or parent, take a deep breath. Give yourself some space to calm down so you can evaluate your options from a clear space.
From this clear space take an assessment of your role in the relationship. It always takes two to tango, so be honest with yourself about what you are doing to contribute to these events. Are you always already defensive when you speak to your sister so you come into the conversation aggressively? Then, of course, she responds with defensiveness to everything you say and you two are both off to the races again.
Are there things you can do to shift your role in the dance? Perhaps not bringing the last 15 years of resentments and anger into every conversation might produce a different outcome.
Is this maddening behavior a new occurrence or one that’s been going on for years? Is this all there is to your relationship or are there some good things also? Can you focus on those because this relationship is important enough to be salvaged?
Sometimes the answer is yes and sometimes it is no. Here are some criteria to evaluate if you should stay or go.
There is abuse. If there is emotional, physical, or verbal abuse then it’s time to go. You should always put your wellbeing and safety first.
Your interactions are mostly negative. Every relationship has its ups and downs but if this relationship has essentially no upside then it is time to move on; or at least take a break.
It’s affecting all aspects of your life. If the stress and anger generated from this relationship is affecting your sleep, your work, and your family life then the cost is too high to continue. If a 15-minute call with your mom causes you to snipe at your kids for the rest of the day, is that call worth it to you?
This relationship is negatively affecting your health. If your jaw clenches when you see your brother’s face on your phone when he calls or if you have a two-day migraine after visiting your mom then some serious changes need to take place.
The relationship is one sided. If you only hear from your nephew when he needs money or a ride but he can’t seem to remember your kids’ birthdays or even bother to ask how you are, then it’s a one-sided relationship.
Phase 2: Make the Cut
If you have decided this relationship is not able to be worked on, then you must decide how deeply you want to detach. Can you make this an occasional interaction, maybe only seeing them at holidays? Or perhaps you can agree to not discuss hot button topics so that you can see each other without it going sideways. This way you can pull away to take care of yourself without having to completely severing ties.
If this relationship needs to be completely cut off at this point, then do that. Don’t let things just dwindle or avoid phone calls. Have a short, concise conversation about how you need to not continue the relationship.
Phase 3: Address the New Dynamic with Your Family
One of the reasons these relationships are so difficult is because they involve so many other people. There might be blow back from other family members who think you’re making trouble. Or your parents might be upset about the disruption within the family and pressure you to just get along.
Your role is to set new boundaries. Let everyone know that they do not have to pick sides. Both of you can be invited to family events. You can either attend and be socially polite with this person or you can decide not to attend.
The important thing is to stay in integrity. Do not gossip about all the things this person did in order to “explain” your decision. Don’t try to make others agree or take your side. The more grown up you can be, the quicker your family will adjust to this new normal.
Families are complicated and hard to get away from. That sword cuts both ways; on the one hand, they give us great skills for navigating the world, yet on the other they are hard to set boundaries with and even extract from if that’s what is warranted.
My hope is if you have one of these toxic family relationships that you take the time and energy to evaluate it, take responsibility for your part, and if needed, make the decision to put your health and wellbeing first. Even if that means losing someone who has been a big part of your life.
It won’t be easy, but you are worth it.